Madison Common Council members raised concerns about the Madison Police Department’s alleged “intimidation” of the Public Safety Review Committee and subcommittee members during meetings.
The PSRC acts as an advisory body to the mayor and city council and reviews the capital budget priorities of MPD. The PSRC has several subcommittees, including a budget subcommittee that examines the MPD budget.
Matthew Mitnick, who serves as a committee member on the PSRC and chairs the PSRC’s budget subcommittee, said he sometimes felt members of MPD would challenge certain aspects of committee discussions without viewing items holistically. While Mitnick said the challenges themselves are not “necessarily bad,” he said the methods often came off as “combative.”
“I think ultimately, the power lies in the committee members, and also the subcommittee and committee members, who are part of the larger committee … but MPD is not a committee member, and they cannot act as de facto committee members,” Mitnick said. “They’re there to answer questions, provide clarification and state opinions if asked, but there have been times [when] I felt like they crossed the line, and when it’s too far in a way that maybe, as a committee member, made me feel very intimidated to go against them.”
Mitnick said MPD staff members participate in the committee’s meetings with their cameras on, act as committee members and try to “intimidate” people during meetings.
In an email statement to The Badger Herald, MPD Public Information Officer Joel DeSpain said MPD officers are “very professional guardians” of the Madison community and adhere to a strict code of conduct.
“Because of COVID concerns, City of Madison meetings are held via Zoom,” DeSpain said in reference to allegations of intimidation. “These are generally recorded, and can be reviewed online, so you could do your own investigating.”
According to meeting recordings reviewed by The Badger Herald, MPD members had their cameras on for every committee and subcommittee meeting posted.
The recordings reflect several occasions when MPD members provided their personal opinions on their own admission, such as in the Oct. 1 Policy Subcommittee meeting when Captain Mindy Winter provided her thoughts at the meeting on providing press passes to journalists during protests and other situations in which protests may escalate into riots.
In the recording, Winter said she didn’t think the press passes would be a good idea, and PSRC Chair Brenda Konkel and Mitnick questioned why the MPD was acting defensively when the committee simply wanted to introduce policies that would prevent journalists from being teargassed.
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“[MPD members] intimidate in trying to manipulate you into thinking that because you disagree with them, you are endangering people, you are anti-safety and that you’re the problem … if you are in a position where you feel comfortable standing up to them making your voice heard,” Mitnick said. “People should never feel that they can’t do that.”
Mitnick said he experienced this throughout the budget report process in the Police Budget Subcommittee of the PSRC. Moreover, when he disagreed with an MPD staff member or MPD Acting Chief Victor Wahl at the meetings, he said he thought MPD took his disagreement as “hostility” when he asked questions or stated his opinions.
Around one and half hours into the Nov. 5 PSRC Budget Subcommittee meeting, when Mitnick said the MPD was being “argumentative,” Wahl said the members’ discussion on less-lethal weaponry and crowd control was “outside” of the motion that was approved and suggested the subcommittee was trying to influence the city council to cut the police budget.
Wahl also read out the motion to the subcommittee, which discussed public comments made at a previous PSRC meeting. The subcommittee was reflecting on public comments at the time, which Mitnick mentioned during the meeting.
At one point, Mitnick said, he was told by an MPD member that he cannot treat being a committee member like a school “term project” — which Mitnick said was “really patronizing.” As a University of Wisconsin student and the youngest person in the room, Mitnick said he believes these comments directly undermine student voices in this process.
“It’s really important that when there are these issues such as policing, for example, and public safety as a whole, that we have students there because oftentimes, I’m the only student in the room in these meetings,” Mitnick said. “And people say certain things are happening in my own community and neighborhoods that are false, and it’s important to have a student voice to be able to correct the narrative and demonstrate that we aren’t just temporary residents here because that’s what a lot of people see us as and think we’ll be here.”
Mitnick said many barriers limit students’ abilities to serve in committee member positions, like the lack of financial compensation and the significant time commitment it takes to sit on a committee. Though many students live in the city, very few serve on any of the city’s committees, which is why it is “critical” for them to have student representation, Mitnick said.
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Before Wahl began his time with the MPD as acting police chief, former police chief Mike Koval had a history of tense relations with city entities. Koval rejected the city council’s resolution to honor his retirement and clashed with the council on the police chief’s blog.
“To the common council: You are being watched. And be on notice: this is a pre-emptive strike from me to you. I am going to push back hard when MPD is constantly used as a political punching bag and you are nowhere to be found,” Koval said in a blog post in 2016.
Ald. Mike Verveer, District 4, said Koval would appear on conservative talk radio and encourage people to contact and condemn the city council.
Verveer said Koval worked to lobby the council in different ways beyond these engagements, and he has not seen the same degree of lobbying under Wahl.
“The former police chief, Mike Koval, significantly worked to lobby the city council both directly and indirectly, but I would say that the current Acting Chief Wahl is nowhere near Koval in terms of the amount of lobbying that was done,” Verveer said.
Ald. Max Prestigiacomo, District 8, said police lobbying in the city council is “rampant.” Prestigiacomo said when alders advocate for defunding the police in their districts, police officers or 911 dispatchers would turn away callers.
Prestigiacomo said they would tell callers if the situation is not life-or-death, they did not have the time to deal with the caller and that callers should call up their council members or alders instead. Prestigiacomo said he believed this is a form of lobbying pressure on the council.
DeSpain said these claims of intimidation were false.
Mitnick said there is heavy lobbying by the MPD and the police union in the city council. The police union — the Madison Professional Police Officers Association — endorses and recruits candidates through funding their campaigns.
“I’ve seen some candidates who were endorsed by the police union who flip on them [when they] realize they’re not advocating for the safety of people and then they actually took a stand against them … but there are so many other elected officials who feel beholden to the police,” Mitnick said. “And because they got that endorsement, and they stick with them on all the votes … that was just built to perpetuate the system in which BIPOC lives and voices don’t matter in the discussions.”
To run for a political office, Mitnick said candidates usually need to have money to reach voters or know somebody who can nominate them for an appointment to a city committee.
Mitnick said this disproportionately leans in favor of white men in Madison, who usually have a higher income and have the funds to run their campaigns. He said he thinks the infrastructure of Madison and the city government excludes the voices of people of color through segregation and redlining.
“All of that was legitimized and welcomed through the city planning process, and I think we’re still seeing the impacts of that today where you have developers who have so much influence over the council, some of which even toy with campaign donations to people,” Mitnick said.
In districts with high crime rates, Prestigiacomo said there is pressure on alders to conform to what the police want because the alders are afraid police officers will not show up when there is a crime in their district.
Prestigiacomo also said he has heard alders of color say they don’t feel safe to speak up against the MPD, which creates a power dynamic that forces some BIPOC alders to advocate for police at city council meetings even if they don’t necessarily support all their practices and policies.
DeSpain said MPD believes in transparency, which the Professional Standards & Internal Affairs Unit of the MPD is responsible for.
DeSpain said individuals can contact the Professional Standards and Internal Affairs Unit if they are aware of any violations of the MPD’s Code of Conduct and file a complaint so an investigation can be conducted.
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Mitnick said the attacks have disparaged the committee, as members are just trying to do their jobs.
“If advocating for change is disrespectful, then I don’t even know what the system is,” Mitnick said.
This article was updated at 10:38 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 24 to include a statement from MPD spokesperson Joel DeSpain.